A Girl and Her Father

Of all biblical stories, Esther is among the best-known and most retold. There is good reason for this. It is a complete and satisfying tale, with peril and victory, with an underdog who wins, a villain who gets his comeuppance, and a brave, beautiful heroine. Its attraction is enormous, but a curious pattern emerges among the re-tellings. Even while staying faithful to the facts of the story, many re-tellings shift the dramatic and emotional center from Esther and Mordecai to Esther and Xerxes. The story of Esther is commonly told as a romance, but in the Bible, the relationship that matters most is the one between Esther and Mordecai.

Esther and Mordecai were cousins, but their relationship is defined by the fact that Mordecai adopted Esther after her parents died, taking her in and raising her. (Somewhat-irrelevant side note: This phenomenon – family members of the same generation but of vast age differences – occurred more frequently in ancient times than in modern, for various reasons.) Mordecai was, in effect, Esther’s father. This relationship drives forward the story: Mordecai’s concern for Esther leads to his vigils at the palace gate, through which he both saves the king’s life and incurs Haman’s animosity; it is Mordecai who explains to Esther (cloistered in the palace) the plot to annihilate the Jews and persuades her to act; Mordecai and Esther together save the Jews and later establish the celebration of Purim.

Esther and Mordecai are also at the heart of the story’s spiritual and emotional power. Esther commands the fasting and prayer in preparation of her bid to save the Jews; Mordecai makes the immortal statement that she became queen “for such a time as this.” It is their lives, their family, and their people brought beneath the shadow of ruthless slaughter. It is their relationship – and emphatically not the relationship between Esther and Xerxes – that is demonstrated to be one of mutual affection: Mordecai walked in a courtyard of the palace every day to find out how Esther was after the king’s officials took her; Esther was “in great distress” at the news of Mordecai’s distress.

Esther’s relationship with Xerxes was, of course, marriage – but marriage to a despot of ancient Persia, and that is a very qualified thing. He practiced, and pretended, no sexual fidelity toward her; consider that he slept with all her rivals for the queenship and then kept them as concubines within his palace. It is evident, too, that Xerxes and Esther didn’t really live together. They only visited at such times when Xerxes wished it – and he could go whole months without wishing it. No detail more sharply illuminates their relationship than the fact that Esther was deathly afraid to go to Xerxes without his summons. In the pivotal moment, Xerxes treated her with regard, but to the end their interactions were those of an absolute sovereign and a favored inferior. Esther was Xerxes’ queen more than she was his wife (though that also, to be fair, had its privileges). It should be noted, too, that Xerxes was an alien to the spiritual concerns of Mordecai and Esther and wholly safe from the death that threatened both of them. Xerxes is an ambivalent figure at best, and a hero on no consideration.

Why, then, do interpretations of the story so often fix on the supposed romance between Esther and Xerxes? The answer is simple, a truth that has long frustrated readers who prefer fantastical stories: People would rather hear about romance. To many people, a romantic relationship – even one as distant and asymmetrical as the marriage of a Persian despot and his queen – is inherently more interesting than a father-daughter relationship, even if it saves a nation from genocide.

Seriously, Now

For some years, I avidly followed a certain political/cultural writer until finally – you know how it can be, between authors and readers – we drifted apart. I thought her commentary was simply declining. One symptom of this decline was an overabundance of the word serious. It wasn’t right or left or even right or wrong anymore: The new word – the only word – was serious. Our national diagnosis was a lack of seriousness and our national prescription was to get serious. Our leaders weren’t serious and they didn’t know how serious things were, but if everybody would just get serious we would all be serious and then things could finally stop being so serious.

I lost interest, but I had a thought: To be serious is not enough. And can’t a serious person be just as wrong as an unserious person and, in certain situations, even more disastrous?

This principle can be applied to art as well as people. You may hear much of serious art or a serious work, but the phrase tells little of the real quality or worth of the work. My favorite example of this disconnect between seriousness and worthiness is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. The most shocking thing about Tarzan of the Apes is that it is a genuinely serious book, a story written around ideas. The second most shocking thing is the book’s level of racism. Given the period in which Tarzan of the Apes was written, a certain degree of racism would not have been surprising; when racism is dominant in society, it is inevitably reflected in (some of) that society’s art. But even with that forewarning, the racism of Tarzan is surprising in its pervasiveness, in how deeply and how elaborately it is woven into the story.

These two elements – the book’s seriousness and its racism – are not at all in contradiction. Indeed, if Tarzan of the Apes had been less serious, it would probably have been less racist. Burroughs might have still, in the appearance of a minor black character, invoked cheap, false stereotypes, but he would not have taken such pains to present thoroughbred English aristocrats as the highest human type. That was Burroughs’ elucidation of the theory of eugenics. Tarzan of the Apes revolves around nature v. nurture, the effect of environment and the effect of genetics; it is also wrong about nearly everything, from the truth of eugenics to the likely consequences of a childhood totally without human interaction. But books, like people, are not any less serious for being wrong, nor less wrong for being serious.

All of this emphasizes the essential ambivalence of what we call seriousness. Serious is more a description than a judgment, more an attribute than a virtue or a vice. To be serious is not to be good, or even to be deep, but the ambivalence is greater than that. Serious ideas, cogently presented, are as likely to be false as to be true, and some of the most serious works are also among the most malignant.

So if anyone, or anything, is commended to you as being serious, remember that this could mean seriously wrong.

Review: Tarzan of the Apes

It is the rare but glorious lot of writers to create a cultural icon that lasts generations, one of those things that everybody just knows even if they’re not sure how. Tarzan is one such icon. Who doesn’t know the image of the handsome, wild, muscular man swinging through the jungle with the agility of an ape? Sometimes there’s a girl in his arm, but to tell the truth, she’s not really necessary.

Like many such icons, Tarzan has been unmoored from his ultimate source. Everybody knows Tarzan, but most haven’t read Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. When I picked up Tarzan of the Apes, I was driven more by curiosity than the hope of a good story.

Tarzan of the Apes was first published in 1912, and a century is more than enough to make a novel historically interesting. Even the novels that were radical unconsciously reflect the ideas and attitudes of their era (no one lives entirely free of his time). In this respect, Tarzan is interesting, even though what it reflects can be quite bad. The crude racist stereotypes are obvious blemishes, but the more subtle eugenicist ideas are the same poison – refined and intellectualized and so more pernicious.

This book surprised me. It is darker and more violent than I anticipated, with a surprising dose of cannibalism from both white and black characters. Tarzan’s jungle divides itself pitilessly into killer and killed, and he himself is a wholehearted participant. Most of the characters, of whatever race or species, are scum. At the same time, it is far more thoughtful than I would have guessed. In the best tradition of speculative fiction, Burroughs uses fiction to explore an idea. He takes up the nature vs. nurture debate by putting a child of the best hereditary (in an eugenicist touch, the son of English aristocrats) in the worst environment (raised by savage apes in a virgin jungle).

To Burroughs’ credit, he doesn’t offer a quick, cut-and-dried answer. Tarzan, the subject of his fictional experiment, is deeply influenced by both hereditary and environment. At the same time, Burroughs’ treatment of the question is generally unconvincing, occasionally ridiculous, and undermined by eugenicist assumptions. Burroughs explicitly grounds the explanation of Tarzan’s superhuman physicality in evolution, in the logic that human muscles and senses atrophied as we learned to rely on reason and would rejuvenate in an environment that demanded it for survival, but I didn’t buy it. Nor did I buy that Tarzan’s aristocratic genes made him instinctively gracious or chivalrous, or that he could become fluent in any language quickly. In a very real way, Tarzan of the Apes is a book of ideas. It’s just that the ideas are mostly claptrap.

As much as eugenics, as an idea, deserves to die, its presence in Tarzan is part of the novel’s scientific bent. So, too, are the references to evolution, the nature vs. nurture debate, and the way an important plot point turns on this new thing, fingerprinting. If you don’t know what that is, the book explains it. A good part of the book’s darkness comes from its more realistic portrayal of apes in particular and African jungles in general. The portrayal is not really scientific; Burroughs attributes to the apes a language (however limited) and customs and laws (however savage). But unlike Disney’s Tarzan and The Jungle Book, which were developed out of a desire for fun, child-friendly stories with animals that talk and sing and occasionally even dance, Burroughs’ jungle society was developed in the spirit of the real jungle. The apes in this novel are violent, but so are apes in real life.

To take Tarzan of the Apes strictly as art, the plot was well-constructed and the author unafraid of making decisive change in his hero and story. The love story, for once, was not completely predictable. The old professors were funny. I was still ready for the book to end in the neighborhood of page 150, and I got tired of the phrase “forest god”.

Not much of the real Tarzan of the apes survives in his icon – not his propensity to kill, his blue blood, his superhuman strength. But the image of him in his jungle is enduring. Tarzan of the Apes may be good fare for those interested in culture, history, and old-fashioned pulp romps. Reader discernment is needed, however, and the novel is emphatically not for children.

Show Your Hand

When I first heard of Triplanetary, recommended as one of science fiction’s great space operas, I caught the copyright year 1997. When I actually got the book in my hands, I realized 1997 was the copyright renewal, 1948 was the original copyright, and much of the book had run as a serial in 1934. Triplanetary is, in a word, old. Old books are often the best to analyze; they come unhindered by current debates, unfiltered by current assumptions.

Triplanetary, an epic clash of four intelligent species framed as an even more epic struggle for galactic destiny, presents an excellent case-study of how a creator’s stories reveal his beliefs. In the first place, it has actual ideas; in the second, it is not a book with a message, so what comments it makes on philosophy or religion are subtle and, perhaps, unconscious. The novel opens with the chance meeting of two alien races hundreds of millions of years ago. The races, super-intelligent and practically immortal, are about equal in ability but polar opposites in nature. Multiple galaxies are not big enough for the both of them, and the benevolent aliens, thinking long-term, hatch a plan: They will find some promising planet and, over the course of thousands of generations, “develop” a new race to outstrip their rivals and finally take the place of Guardians of Civilization.

Not that I imagine it’s a spoiler, but that race is us.

With this idea, the author tips his hand regarding his essential worldview. A Christian author could easily write a secular book, but even there – even in a sci-fi novel nobody believes anyway – he’s unlikely to portray humanity as the product of aliens monkeying with the evolutionary process. The aliens’ “program of genetics” – managing blood lines and human mating, through means that are never described – hints at eugenics; it’s ambiguous, however, whether the aliens’ genetic program advanced the evolution of humanity or created a master race within it.

The most important idea in the novel is Civilization (capitalization from the original). It’s curious that Civilization is never defined; perhaps the author assumed that people would know what he meant by it, and perhaps, back in 1948, he was right. Probably what he meant was Progress, in every way the word can be understood. Triplanetary presents a long history of malignant aliens engineering the destruction of civilizations, from Atlantis to Rome to the United States, and an equally long history of benevolent aliens raising up newer, better civilizations in their place. One sees, in the long panorama, a climb out of chaos and violence, a march toward science and technology. You might even call it the long arc of history, bending toward justice. This unexamined optimism, with its touching idealism and materialistic faith, is old and widespread.

The ethic of Triplanetary is not our modern ethic. It’s too archaic in its reverence for womanhood, its definition of manhood by courage, resolve, and physical heroism; its casual assertion of moral principle above love is bracing. At the same time, it is not a Christian ethic. The sense, felt sometimes in the pages of the book, that Civilization matters more than the millions lost along the way is cold and foreign. The ethic of Triplanetary is, moreover, divorced from God – amicably divorced, to be sure, but divorced all the same.

Triplanetary is revealing of its time and its author. Beliefs about God, the universe, and right and wrong have a way of becoming apparent, even when left unspoken. We all show our hands in the end. It’s only a matter of how.

Review: The Charlatan’s Boy

It’s a sad day in Corenwald when no one believes in feechies anymore. Specifically, it’s a sad day for Floyd Wendellson and his boy, Grady. The paying crowds pay them no longer. After making a living for years by pretending to be a feechie expert and a genuine feechie boy, they may have to get legitimate jobs.

Ha ha! I’m kidding, of course. What they do next is put up the Ugliest Boy in the World act. As the bad new days run on into years, they make a daring bid to bring back the good old days. Their scheme is unethical and there has to be some sort of law against it, but what do you expect from the charlatan and his boy? They’re neither heroes nor villains, only two showmen trying to turn a pretty penny without any punctilious dedication to the truth.

Jonathan Rogers delivers his story in appropriate style. The book is filled with humor, much of it the sort that is seen by the readers and not the characters. It’s written in first-person, and as you can imagine, a charlatan’s boy will not have the most educated voice. Though to be fair, almost no one in the book does. The editor either had a hard or wonderfully easy time of it, depending on whether she tried to distinguish real grammar errors from style or simply decided it was all one.

The world of The Charlatan’s Boy is constructed with imagination and flair. Unlike most fantasy worlds, Corenwald is more American than European, more modern than medieval. A few things in Corenwald do sound British – the constables, the public houses. But the alligators are decidedly American, and if any other fantasy book mentions watermelons, I haven’t had the privilege of coming across it. American figures come wandering through, re-dressed in Corenwald guise. The traveling snake oil salesman has a lasting place in the American imagination, and the drovers are charmingly familiar. If not the brothers of America’s cowboys, they are at least their cousins. It’s the same trade, but seeing how each generally pursues it, the drovers lack the organization and sophistication of the cowboys. (Perhaps that last phrase is strange to read; it was strange to write.)

Among the rough-and-tumble sorts, constables in blue uniforms and schoolmarms in one-room schoolhouses impose civilization. Yet two things break the mien of the nineteenth-century frontier verging into civilization. For one, the weaponry is bows and arrows, swords and spears. For the other, the good people of Corenwald were seriously told by their forebears that another race lives secretly alongside them, and they are not too far away from believing it.

The Charlatan’s Boy is reminiscent of the old-school episodic novel – Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Penrod, Mark Twain. The main issues of the book are set up at the beginning and steadily – if not urgently – addressed. Yet, lingering over drovers’ fires and doing the phrenology routine, even parts that advance the plot often feel anecdotal. The anecdotes were entertaining, well-told, and even charming. But as they followed one on another, I began wondering when the next shoe would finally fall on somebody.

I would, however, do a disservice to this book if I made it sound as if it went nowhere. It did go somewhere, and the climax and conclusion were marvelous. The humor and the lightheartedness of the story are a joy, and sometimes – suddenly but naturally – sadness pierces through, straight to the heart. The Charlatan’s Boy, with its humor and its heart and its style, is captivating and even, in an unemphatic sort of way, brilliant fantasy.

Uncommon Knowledge

Once I made what is, I fancy, a common mistake in college and registered for an elective English class. At one point in the course, the professor told us to make allusions that our audience would understand, and furthermore to consider our classmates our audience. To illustrate what our audience would not understand, he asked for a show of hands from anyone who recognized the name Nebuchadnezzar. The percentage of those who did raise their hands was about one out of ten. The lesson? No biblical allusions. (We should all take a moment and consider what it means that it couldn’t be a historical allusion.)

This is a question Christian writers now face: With biblical illiteracy on the rise, should biblical allusions be on the wane? Knowing that many people simply will not understand the reference, should it still be made? To find the answer, I think it is useful to move the conversation back one step to the more general question. Should writers limit themselves to allusions they can be confident their audience will understand?

There are two immediate answers to this question. My professor gave the first – Yes. The danger of this lies in reducing writing to the lowest common denominator, carefully pruned of any historical or literary references that imply you read books not optioned by Hollywood studios. The second answer, of course, is No, and it is exemplified by the writer William F. Buckley, whose writing style was once summarized as, “Look it up, serf.” The danger of this lies in becoming abstruse, indecipherable, maybe pompous and obnoxious. One’s communication (and what else is writing?) should not encrypted with obscure allusions.

There ought to be somewhere authors and readers can meet in between the lowest common denominator and encryption. As with so many things, an excellent example of this is found in Jesus Christ. Consider this passage from the Gospel of Matthew:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:23-24)

That final sentence – strain out a gnat but swallow a camel – would sound proverbial and esoteric taken alone. But it’s perfectly explicable in its context. It’s an extravagant image to illustrate how the Pharisees keep the law in small matters and violate it in large matters; the point explains the image, and the image sharpens the point. You need only the context to understand.

At the same time, the sentence makes several allusions. It is, first of all, an allusion to the Law of Moses, which prohibited both camels and gnats as unclean animals that would make God’s people unclean. You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel explicitly accuses the Pharisees of breaking the Law of Moses and implicitly accuses them of being unclean. The sentence also alludes to the real Pharisaical practice of straining gnats from wine or drinking water – and indicts that practice as useless in achieving true obedience to the law.

In fact, the more you know of the Pharisees and the Law of Moses the more you see how acerbic and brilliant Jesus’ statement really is. But you don’t need to know any of it to grasp the essential idea. The allusions add meaning; they don’t hide it. And that is the way all allusions should work. Allusions should create new depths of meaning, not lock the whole meaning away. Once you make the meaning clear, you can dare an allusion to uncommon knowledge. And you know something? Those biblical allusions really class up the joint.

Blitz: Beyond a Darkened Shore


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Release Blitz for
Beyond a Darkened Shore
By Jessica Leake

Beyond a Darkened Shore
by Jessica Leake
Young Adult Historical Fantasy
Hardcover & ebook, 384 pages
April 10th 2018 by HarperTeen

The ancient land of Éirinn is mired in war. Ciara, princess of Mide, has never known a time when Éirinn’s kingdoms were not battling for power, or Northmen were not plundering their shores.

The people of Mide have always been safe because of Ciara’s unearthly ability to control her enemies’ minds and actions. But lately a mysterious crow has been appearing to Ciara, whispering warnings of an even darker threat. Although her clansmen dismiss her visions as pagan nonsense, Ciara fears this coming evil will destroy not just Éirinn but the entire world.

Then the crow leads Ciara to Leif, a young Northman leader. Leif should be Ciara’s enemy, but when Ciara discovers that he, too, shares her prophetic visions, she knows he’s something more. Leif is mounting an impressive army, and with Ciara’s strength in battle, the two might have a chance to save their world.

With evil rising around them, they’ll do what it takes to defend the land they love…even if it means making the greatest sacrifice of all.

Praise for the Book

Beyond a Darkened Shore is thrilling and romantic. This is a must-read for lovers of fantasy, mythology, and folklore.” – Kody Keplinger, New York Times bestselling author of The DUFF and Run

“With undead armies, flesh-eating spirit horses, and a powerful heroine, fantasy, romance, and historical-fiction readers will have a great time.” – Booklist

“While Morrigan and Odin are terrifying, raven-haired Ciara is the star. Beautiful, strong, and independent, she is the perfect warrior princess. Epic historical fantasy filled with deadly creatures, simmering romance, and nonstop action.” – Kirkus Reviews

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Excerpt

The waves viciously beat against the worn rock, sending sprays of white water into the air. It should have been deterrent enough, but the Northmen were relentless. Their longship had already landed. Men poured from its side like a wave of death. As I took in the square sail—white with a crimson skeletal dragon—my heart beat a furious rhythm in my chest. I’d fought countless Northmen in battles throughout our kingdom, but the sight of that sail still made every muscle in my body clench in warring fear and anger—and memory.

My clansmen’s blood staining the earth red—

—my sister’s hand in mine as we tried to escape—

—her eyes wide as the blood trailed down her throat, and me, screaming, screaming—

I shook my head, banishing the memories before they could weaken my mind further. Sleipnir snorted and pawed the ground in response. Like other horses, he could sense my emotions. But unlike other horses, my apprehension only made him bolder.

Fergus wheeled his horse over to me and spat on the ground. “Let us pray the blood of the raiders will flow this day.”

I glanced at the men assembled beside me and frowned. A Northman longship of the size of the one on our shore could hold at least sixty men, far more than our own crew. “The battle can go no farther than this cliff—not this time.”

“I will cover you as best I can,” Fergus said. “You search for their leader.”

I tightened my grip on the hilt of my sword. My arm muscles tensed, and my heart pounded. Anticipation of the battle was always the hardest: the prickling adrenaline, the torrent of memories, the cold dread. I endured it all because my sisters and mother were huddled in fear in their room. We were the only things preventing them from being killed.

I snapped my attention back to the battle. The Northmen had begun the treacherous climb to our stronghold. With any luck, we would pick them off as they emerged at the top of the cliff. The Northman raiding strategy was always to ambush. Instead of recognizing such actions as dishonorable, they seemed happy to live to fight again. They wouldn’t expect us to be waiting for them, and if we could defeat their leader quickly enough, they might retreat. There was no dishonor in retreat in their eyes either, not when their strategy to ambush meant they were usually slinking into a castle and catching its warriors unawares.

Holding the high ground was our advantage. We had to make it count.

With a shout, the first man made it to the top. He showed a momentary flash of surprise that we were lying in wait for him, but he recovered quickly. Battle-axe raised and shield in front of his chest, he charged. More of the enemy followed, their armor and long beards making them indistinguishable from one another. My clansmen made rivers of their blood.

About the Author

Jessica Leake is the author of the adult novels Arcana and The Order of the Eternal Sun, both with Skyhorse. She worked for years as a psychotherapist, but even though she loved her clients, she couldn’t stop writing. She lives in South Carolina with her husband, four young children, lots of chickens, and two dogs who keep everyone in line. Beyond a Darkened Shore is her YA debut. Visit her at www.jessicaleake.com.

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Coming Back, Going Forward

Of all the good old literary games, one of the most well-respected is Find the Archetype. It consists of taking a character, proving that he is like other characters who filled similar roles in their own stories, and declaring him an Archetype. It’s a simple game – there are only about six stories ever told, and you learn to see through the masks pretty quick – but it can be entertaining and may even see you through college English.

There is a special version of Find the Archetype played by Christians. Its purpose is to find the Messiah Archetype or, more casually, the Jesus-figure. One of the first proofs of the Messiah Archetype is a return from the dead. Returning from the dead is a common trope, from fairy tales to fantasy and from folk tales to science fiction; it’s a far easier commonality to find than, say, the Virgin Birth. (Not that this is impossible. Star Wars did it. It was stupid, but they did do it.) And because the Resurrection makes the Gospel the Gospel, and “He is risen!” was more significant than “He is born,” rising from the dead is the most important commonality to find, too.

Yet I am struck more by the difference between Christ’s Resurrection and the return of Aslan (Gandalf, Harry Potter …) than I am by the similarity. The apostles spoke of the Resurrection as a singular event; to take one example – from Acts 26 – Paul calls Jesus the first to rise from the dead. And we need to remember – Paul certainly would not have forgotten – that in the Gospels alone we have the raising of Lazarus, the synagogue ruler’s daughter, the widow’s son, and the “holy people” on Good Friday. Long before the time of Jesus, Elijah and Elisha also raised the dead.

And yet Jesus is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep,” the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). The difference to be drawn here is this: The raising of Lazarus and the others was the reversal of death, a return to the life (and body) that we all have known; the raising of Christ was the resurrection from death – the body raised in glory, an onward journey into a life of which we have not even dreamed. “For the trumpet will sound,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

We find some illustration of the change in the Gospels; Jesus famously declared that “the children of the resurrection” do not marry and cannot die (Luke 20). And there is a suggestion, however nebulous, of the nature of the resurrection in the Easter accounts. In an odd way, there is more continuity between the natural body and the resurrected body than might be imagined. Jesus invited Thomas to touch the nail marks in His hands and put his hand into His side; His wounds were healed but visible still. There may be others who will not lose their scars, or want to.

In a larger, and even stranger, way, there is less continuity than would be easily supposed. One of the mysteries of the Resurrection is the persistent trouble Christ’s followers had in recognizing Him. Mary Magdalene didn’t know Him at first, and neither did the men on the road to Emmaus, and there is something halting and almost fearful in the disciples’ recognition of Jesus by the Sea of Tiberius. As a final point, Christ ate after He was resurrected. And I know this sounds boring, but it means that all that talk about feasts in the kingdom of God wasn’t metaphorical, and I dare any of you to tell me that you don’t care.

The reversal of death is very different from resurrection. To come back from death is not the same as going forward from it. All the Messiah archetypes I know of are returns, not the forging of bright frontiers beyond death and merely natural life. Speculative fiction is bound only by imagination, but even artists have trouble imagining resurrection. And this resurrection, almost blinding in its glory – it is Christ’s triumph, and our hope.

Bad Religion

If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.

The release of A Wrinkle In Time has brought this quotation to the surface. It sounds profound and is, I think, deeply wrong, but I don’t want to attack a lone, disconnected sentence. It would be better to return the sentence to its proper context, attempt to understand it, and then attack it.

The statement is taken from Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. After some meandering, L’Engle expands the idea:

Basically there can be no categories as “religious” art and “secular” art, because all true art is incarnational, and therefore “religious”.

To understand what she means by incarnational, we must backtrack to an earlier passage, a sort of extended analogy that compares artists to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation (it sounds less silly when L’Engle says it, but never doubt: It is really, in absolute and incontrovertible truth, just as silly): 

[The] artist must be obedient to the work … I believe that each work of art … comes to the artist and says, “Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.” And the artist either says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one. 

The pithiest summation of all this is that art is religion. A more difficult, and perhaps truer, summation is that art is inherently religious because to create it is, consciously or unconsciously, a religious act – an act of obedience to the divine or, at least, to the transcendent. And this brings us back again, circuitously but logically, to the original statement that to be guilty of bad art is to be guilty of bad religion.

Make no mistake: The guilt is real. L’Engle lightly comments in Walking on Water that the writer of a “shoddy novel” has “reject[ed] the obedience, tak[en] the easy way out.” So to write a shoddy novel is a moral failing. Your bad prose flows from your moral weakness and the holes in your plot darkly reflect the hole in your character.

The equation between bad religion and bad art, and between moral failure and artistic failure, is false. It is flat nonsense to believe that a bad story must come from disobedience to “the work” and never consider that it probably comes from the eternal gremlins of artistic endeavors, lack of time and lack of skill. I put great emphasis on skill, more than on any nebulously-rendered obedience; it’s real and practical and necessary. In art, as in sports, no emotion, belief, or effort is enough in itself. You must have the skill, too.

Art is not an obedient response to “the work” that, L’Engle imagines, somehow already exists and wants to be incarnated; it’s not a religious act. Art is work, in the same way that cooking a meal or building a bridge is work, and like all work, it can be done badly or it can be done well. Certainly the religion of the art can influence its quality. But to make the quality of a work’s religion synonymous with the quality of its art is as wrongheaded as judging love by its poetry. (And if we did judge love by its poetry, we would know from the greetings cards we have all given and received that the world is a cold, dark, loveless place.)

There is excellent art that is bad religion. There is bad art that is excellent religion. Religion and art are not so closely bound as to make one bad or good as the other is bad or good. To think they are is bad religion.

In Praise of Short Stories

There was a time when the world abounded with short stories. Great authors wrote brief masterpieces, securing their places in literary history and in English courses throughout North America; great books were introduced to the world as serialized novels. The mediocre and the obscure – overlapping but not homogeneous groups – found their footing in pulp magazines, making their appeal to niche markets.

But the short story faded. The magazines were mostly shut down, the new great authors wrote long masterpieces, and novels were published all at once. Established authors might get their short stories published in anthologies or – especially if the story was about Christmas – in little hardbacks with trite Hallmark illustrations meant to justify charging readers fifteen bucks for a crummy twenty thousand words. (They didn’t.) But the days when writers could make their fame or living by short stories were over.

Now novels are, more and more frequently, simply one part of a book series, as movies are one part of a franchise. So while stories grow longer and longer, I want to speak a word in praise of short stories. For years I’ve been making my way through the sci-fi short story collections on Librivox. I didn’t begin with any real appreciation of short stories, but I learned it. I learned to see what advantages short stories uniquely possess.

Ideas and styles that aren’t suited to long works find expression in short stories. Such ideas and styles aren’t inherently worse, but they are different. “Ask a Foolish Question” tells a sci-fi story in a fairy-tale form and it is entrancing, but it would grow awfully thin stretched out to three hundred pages. This story is devoted to a single thought, profound though melancholy, that our trouble isn’t that we don’t know the answer; it’s that we don’t know the question. No novel can be built on a single thought, because one thought just doesn’t go far enough. But short stories can be, and that is one of their noblest functions: to catch those stray ideas or images that would otherwise just drift away.

Short stories are also the playground of an old game in science fiction: trick the readers with their own assumptions. Here is how it is played: First, center the story around a classic conflict but hide one basic, vital fact; trust that the audience will automatically complete the picture with some natural assumption, and it will be wrong; write the story in a way that supports the readers’ misperception without truly affirming it; at the end, reveal the truth. This game, difficult to sustain for very long, is really only suited to the format of short stories, and even there writers commonly lose. Readers learn to play, too. “Rough Beast” and “Runaway” attempt the game, if you want to see it done. (“Runaway” sort of devastated me; I mean this as a warning, but I know it just makes you want to read it more.)

Finally, short stories require only a minor investment of time. They don’t take the commitment that novels do, or incur an equal cost when they’re not worth it. That frees you to be less selective and more adventurous in your reading. You may even discover stories of poor quality that have, among all the chaff, a valuable kernel of wheat. I have read short stories that, for all their deficiencies, had an image or an idea that stayed with me.

Short stories have to know their end and pursue it with devotion; where they don’t have time for depth they must compensate with color. The difference between short stories and novels is not only length; short stories are not simply less. They are their own art form, and I say – bring them back.